Author Lessons from Star Trek: First Contact

March 30, 2012 in General Topics

I have always loved Star Trek: First Contact, and it’s on my personal list of all-time favorite science fiction films. When one examines it alongside its sister films, it’s easy to see why it worked so well. And in comparison with the other three films, it lays open a host of lessons for an author. What does Picard and company’s second outing teach us that the other three movies don’t?

What makes this film so much better than its peers?To understand why First Contact stands out, we need to first understand what the film first shares with its kin: Special effects are a-plenty. There’s tons of action, sure, and lots of great space battle sequences. The soundtrack, sound effects and sound editing are excellent. There’s the typical “guest stars” common in every Trek film.

This is nice stuff, but a film with just these elements ceases to be special, and lacks a lasting impression beyond its initial run.

No, what made First Contact such a hit, and so influential on the franchise — to the point that its precepts underpinned Star Trek: Enterprise — were the less visible elements of its own composition. Let’s step away from planets and ships, from phasers and warp drive, and focus on the nuance.

First, the film celebrates its own mythos in the way the other films do not, and extends that mythology.

It adds to its own foundation as opposed to simply running off into pre-encapsulated adventure.

It can do this, in part, because of its villainy. The key baddies present are the Borg, and though they’re commanded by the Borg Queen (first seen in this film), the key point is: we know this foe. This means we don’t have to establish and justify the presence of a hereto-unseen villain. We’ve already seen pieces of the film’s essence through the looking glass; through the canon established long before. We’re just given a wider field of view this time. This allows for much-accelerated pacing.

Contrast that with Star Trek:Generations. Insert bad boy generic villain with a quest for a proxy of heaven. We’ve never seen him before, we’ll never see him again, but we have to spend a large chunk of the tale explaining who he is, what he wants, and why he wants it. As a side note, we do get the Duras sisters (holdovers from the TV series), which is nice, but they’re a peanut gallery and not really critical to the plot.

What about Star Trek: Insurrection and its face-stretching homewreckers in the Briar Patch? What about them, indeed. We never see them again, after that film, and the loss isn’t felt.

Hello Star Trek: Nemesis, goodbye one-shot, out-of-the-blue Picard clone (though the actor was decent). The Nosferatu-like Remans, conveniently oppressed by the Romulans for generations, shake their harness in time for this film, then all die. Or something. Give me a break.

There is no reason on Mars that any of those other films’ antagonists would matter to us. With all three, we burn an awful lot of back-story justifying a key narrative that doesn’t unlock anything we care about.

When these conflicts are over, they add nothing to the Star Trek Universe. They all get sewn up, and the viewer completely forgets about them.

And It’s not like the value of expanding the mythos should have been lost on the films’ creators. There’s no excuse. Didn’t they learn how well it works way back in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan?

Have you ever seen an author deviate, dramatically, from their mythos? Did it work out? I’d argue it takes a cunning writer, indeed, to pull it off.

A second reason the film worked, where the others didn’t, is that it celebrates its characters.

Consider the approach taken in Generations, a film which feels awkward, because it is.

Shatner’s Kirk seems lost and confused, as if he’s spending most of the movie drugged, and though the nature of his confinement via the film’s storyline makes some of that appropriate, the core problem is Shatner is having to make Kirk work with a character arc that isn’t worth Kirk’s time. The actor’s frustration, which is palatable, is understandable: Kirk is dragged into the story solely to meet Picard, via a ridiculous plot coupon, out of such a desperation for fan service that “Generations” shoots its own credibility in the foot.

This ties into mythos, again, and the problem Generations has with it, again, because Generations ignores the lovely, perfect parting of the original TV series’ characters in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.

What must have seemed like such a gold mine to the film’s creators — their excitement over these two Captains meeting for the first time — never pans out because neither of these characters should have ever shared the screen, at least for such a compressed period as Generation‘s running time. Both have such immense presence in the canon that the film just can’t do them justice. It spreads its attention across both of them, and the result is banal.

Fast forward to First Contact. Picard gets a wonderful character arc exploring the film’s central theme of loss and revenge, and Patrick Stewart gets to spend the film exploring and doing justice to that arc. Picard has the time he deserves because the story has it to give.

In Generations, Data battles with an emotion chip, a device that denigrates the core of Data’s character development; a piece of technology that should have never made it into the canon, but at least was handled with care in the TV series.

But in First Contact, Data has the ultimate carrot dangled in front of him — the chance to be more human than ever before, and it is done in an appropriate, believable manner. That’s more like it.

Insurrection? He gets the chance to be a flotation device.

Honestly, all the characters shine in the second TNG film, every last one of them, including the too-human, reluctant, drunken Dr. Cochrane, and Lily. The latter serves as a rational counterweight to Picard’s internal struggles against succumbing to mindless wrath. Picard. Struggling against sacrificing his own crew members in the name of revenge. Needing a rational counterweight. That’s great stuff.

Heck, even an EMH cameo leads to a shining moment.

Do you celebrate your characters in your own writing? Do you explore their internal conflicts in an effective manner? Do you challenge them in ways they were unprepared to be challenged?

Third, the film celebrates tension, and effectively deploys it.

And does it by subtracting, rather than adding, which I find to be the most effective approach. I touched on the way having a known quantity as a villain enhances the pacing, but let’s look at the character component for a moment.

Mr. Worf. I’ve always enjoyed the Klingon-centered elements of The Next Generation, and Worf was no exception. How do the films treat the character, and the actor (Michael Dorn)?

In Insurrection, Worf announces “I’m definitely feeling aggressive tendencies.” It’s blunt, it’s stupid, it’s campy, and it’s regrettable.

He gets thrown overboard in Generations.

He gets hungover in Nemesis.

In First Contact, Worf announces he’d kill Picard if he were any other man, for calling him a coward. He draws a fighting knife during a mind-bending struggle on the ship’s navigational deflector. He uses a Borg arm to seal off his own leaking space suit. All this with minimal dialog.

I know I’m somewhat simplifying Worf’s presence in the four films, but do you see the difference?

In what ways do you deploy tension?

I could talk endlessly about “First Contact” and what it does right, and I left tons of material out of this posting for want of brevity. Even then, I somewhat failed. But I blame the film, ultimately, for being so good at what it does, and inviting us to compare it so highly against the films to either side of it. We must examine, and, to quote Picard, “Engage!”

Stay tuned.